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Better Late Than Never, Romania Moves to Confront Holocaust Past

November 6, 2003
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The recent establishment of a historical commission to investigate the Holocaust in Romania is part of a belated effort by the government to clean up its act before entering NATO next year.

It also is the fruit of close cooperation between the Romanian government, Jewish organizations and Holocaust research and memorial centers in Israel and the United States.

President Ion Iliescu announced the formation of a Holocaust Commission at a news conference in Bucharest on Oct. 22. The international group of historians, Holocaust survivors and other experts will be headed by Romanian-born Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who has written widely on his experiences in the Holocaust.

“I am aware that your assignment is hard to accomplish, since there are people who believe that the Holocaust is too sensitive and too complicated an issue to be researched in objectivity, while others respond negatively and allergically to the very idea of the Holocaust,” Iliescu told members of the new body.

He also announced that Romania would observe a national Holocaust Remembrance Day, and that efforts would be strengthened to educate Romanians about how, why and where hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

The commission hopes to offer “to all teachers, students, to all Romanians, as well as historians and international public opinion, documents, studies and other materials needed for knowing and understanding the Holocaust in Romania,” he said.

Romania was allied with Nazi Germany during World War II, and about half of its pre-war Jewish population of about 800,000 was murdered.

In recent years, the anniversaries of pogroms in the northern city of Iasi and in Bucharest have been marked by official commemorations, and several Jewish research centers and education programs have been set up. Relations with Israel are close.

But the deportation of some 240,000 Romanian Jews to concentration camps in what is now Ukraine largely have been ignored. What’s more, right-wing nationalist publications spout anti-Semitic rhetoric, and the pro-Nazi World War II leader, Marshal Ion Antonescu, is venerated in various quarters as a Romanian patriot.

Romania is one of seven post-Communist states due to join the NATO next May. It hopes to join the European Union in 2007.

That has put its ambiguous record under heightened scrutiny.

“Confronting the Holocaust-era past figured prominently in the NATO accession discussions, certainly in the bilateral exchanges with the U.S.,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director for international Jewish affairs.

At one point last year, the U.S. NATO Committee chairman told a Romanian newspaper that right-wing nationalist extremism, anti-Semitism and open nostalgia for the Antonescu regime could hinder Romania’s efforts to enter NATO.

In response, the Bucharest government passed tough legislation last year against the Antonescu cult, and it also adopted property restitution measures that addressed both private and communal claims.

“Political leaders in Romania — especially those with an eye on U.S. and international audiences — were aware of the importance of acting and speaking properly on these matters,” said Baker, who closely monitored the NATO talks and was part of a team that helped prepare the new Holocaust Commission.

Still, he added, “the sort of open and critical examination of the Holocaust-era past that was taking place in other former Warsaw Pact countries” failed fully to materialize in Romania.

Efforts in other countries included historical commissions in the Baltic states and government legislation and commissions that addressed property claims in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

In Poland, revelations three years ago that Polish Catholics butchered their Jewish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne touched off lacerating nationwide debates on Poland’s role in the Holocaust.

Ironically, Baker said, “in some cases where there was a strong ethnic community in Israel that did not look warmly on the present government — for example, Lithuania — the Jewish state could be mobilized to press these issues quite strongly. But in other cases, where the bilateral relationship was a warm one — as was the case with Romania – – Israel was far less likely to press Holocaust-era concerns.”

The Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in Romania called the government moves against racism and anti-Semitism superficial ploys designed “to recruit Jewish support in the effort to push Romania’s interests forward without Romania truly accepting its share of responsibility in the extermination of 20 to 50 percent of the Jews living in Romania before the war.”

Matters came to a head last June, when the Romanian government issued a statement that appeared to deny that the Holocaust had occurred on Romanian territory

The Foreign Ministry quickly retracted this, but Iliescu himself reignited the controversy with comments to the media, including an interview in July with Israel’s daily Ha’aretz in which he appeared to call into question the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

The confusing series of statements and counterstatements prompted an outcry from Israel and the Jewish world and gave impetus to moves aimed at creating the Holocaust commission and other initiatives.

Romanian officials worked with Jewish representatives, including Baker and B’nai B’rith International’s executive vice president, Daniel Mariaschin — as well as Radu Ioanid, an expert on the Holocaust in Romania at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — to formulate goals and parameters.

Yad Vashem provided additional input in drawing up concrete guidelines and a work schedule for the commission.

Elie Wiesel agreed to serve as chairman, Baker said, “conditional on key elements — the independence of the commission, unfettered access to all archival material, our or his approval of all designated historians and a commitment to widely disseminate the commission’s findings and recommendations.”

The commission will hold a conference every six months in Jerusalem, Washington or Bucharest, and a summary report will be submitted by the end of 2005.

“We would like to give Romania a clear picture of what the Holocaust meant, with rigorous analysis, data and photos,” Ioanid, who will be vice president of the commission, told Reuters. “The public will understand what happened in the past if the findings of the investigation are properly disseminated.”

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